Appealing to Our Lizard Brains
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Since the president's meltdown in the first debate – followed in quick succession by Paul Bremer's confession, the CIA's no-al Qaeda/Saddam link report, the Duelfer no-WMD-since '91 report, and the woeful September job numbers – I have been racking my brain trying to figure out why George W. Bush is still standing.
The answer arrived via my friend Ed Solomon, the brilliant writer and filmmaker, who explained that the conundrum could be solved by looking at the very organ I'd been racking.
Ed introduced me to the work of Dr. Daniel Siegel, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist and author of the forthcoming book Mindsight, which explores the physiological workings of the brain.
Turns out, when it comes to campaign 2004, it's the neuroscience, stupid!
Or, as Dr. Siegel told me: "Voters are shrouded in a 'fog of fear' that is impacting the way our brains respond to the two candidates."
Thanks to the Bush campaign's unremitting fear-mongering, millions of voters are reacting not with their linear and logical left brain but with their lizard brain and their more emotional right brain.
What's more, people in a fog of fear are more likely to respond to someone whose primary means of communication is in the non-verbal realm, neither logical nor language-based. (Sound like any presidential candidate you know?)
And that's why Bush is still standing. It's not about left wing versus right wing; it's about left brain versus right brain.
Deep in the brain lies the amygdala, an almond-sized region that generates fear. When this fear state is activated, the amygdala springs into action. Before you are even consciously aware that you are afraid, your lizard brain responds by clicking into survival mode. Fight, flight, or freeze.
And, boy, have the Bushies been giving our collective amygdala a workout. Especially Dick Cheney, who has proven himself an unmatched master of the dark arts of fear mongering. For an object lesson in how to get those lizard brains leaping look no further than the vice presidential debate.
"The biggest threat we face today," said Cheney in his very first answer "is the possibility of terrorists smuggling a nuclear weapon or a biological agent into one of our own cities and threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans."
Just in case we didn't get the point, he repeated the ominous assertion, practically word for word, another two times – throwing in the fact that he was "absolutely convinced" that the threat "is very real." It was "be afraid, be very afraid" to the third power.
And when we are afraid, we are biologically programmed to pay less attention to left-brain signals – indeed, our logical mind actually shuts itself down. Fear paralyzes our reasoning and literally makes it impossible to think straight. Instead, we search for emotional, nonverbal cues from others that will make us feel safe and secure.
We don't want to hear about a four-point plan to win the peace, or a list of damning statistics, or even a compelling, well-reasoned argument. We want to get the feeling that everything is going to be all right.
In this state, our brains care more about tone of voice than what is being said. This is why Bush can verbally stumble and sputter and make little or no sense and still leave voters feeling that he is the candidate best able to protect them. Our brains are primed to receive the kinds of communication he has to offer and discard the kinds John Kerry has to offer, even if Kerry makes more "logical sense."
The strutting, winking, pointing, and near-shouting that marked Bush's town hall debate performance all sent the same subconscious message to our fear-fogged brains: "I'm your daddy – I've got your back!"
"At the deepest level," Dr. Siegel told me, "we react to fear as adults in much the same way we did as infants. It's primal. Human babies have the most dependent infancy of any species. Our survival depends on the caregiver. We instinctively look to authority figures to comfort us and keep us safe."
As needy infants, this natural drive to be soothed and reassured is what we looked for in our parents; as anxious adults in these exceptionally unsettling times, it's what we are looking for in our leaders.
Over the remaining three weeks of the campaign, as the anxiety level reaches a fevered pitch – and you can be certain the Bush campaign will do everything in its power to make sure that happens – the test facing voters is no longer "Which candidate would you rather have a beer with?" It's "Which candidate would you rather give you your blankie and a bottle and keep the boogeyman away?"
I know it sounds ludicrous that the most important election of our lifetime is coming down to who can best pacify the electorate's inner baby, but I can think of no better explanation as to why Bush is not currently hovering at around five percent in the polls – a voting bloc made up of those hardcore fanatics who are as utterly blind to reality as he is.
As long as we're operating from our lizard brains – and reason takes a back seat to more primal needs – George Bush will continue to survive the logic-based attacks on his ever-escalating failures.
The only question that remains is: can Bush, Cheney and Rove keep us shrouded in the fog of fear long enough to brain John Kerry and win in November?